The American Jewish Community and the 2020 US Presidential Election


Op-ed by Lara Friedman, originally published by Arab Center Washington D.C. on January 31, 2020.

Americans who self-identify as Jewish represent a tiny portion of the American electorate. Often discussed as a homogeneous voting bloc, in reality the American Jewish community is defined by its heterogeneity. As a demographic, it includes individuals who, while all self-identifying as Jewish, simultaneously define their identity in terms of a wide spectrum of religious, social, and political beliefs and practices. It is therefore confounding to some that taken as a whole, the American Jewish community, for all its internal divisions and distinctions, has nonetheless long been characterized by remarkably consistent, and by all appearances coherent, voting preferences.

It is because of these distinctions, too, that in virtually every election cycle, speculation runs high over whether, finally, in this election there will be a meaningful change in the Jewish vote. Indeed, in the context of two of the defining trends of the Donald Trump era – a shift in US policies related to Israel and surging antisemitism in the United States and abroad – the voting patterns of the American Jewish community are under an even brighter spotlight. Yet, the impact of the American Jewish vote on the 2020 election result – whether it remains as it has been or changes—will be limited; given the relatively small number of Jewish voters and their geographic concentrations, American Jews as a voting demographic are unlikely to have a decisive impact on the presidential election, though their votes may have greater impact down-ballot.

Basic Facts

Americans Jews of voting age are estimated to represent around 2% of the population of the United States.1 According to exit polls in previous elections, voters who self-identify as Jewish represent 2-5% of the electorate, underscoring that fact that self-identified Jews vote in high numbers.2

These same exit polls highlight another basic fact about self-identified Jewish voters: their partisan preferences have been remarkably consistent, with majorities of American Jews voting for the Democratic candidate in every presidential election since 1924.3 Indeed, for the period of 1992-2016, the average percentage of the Jewish vote going to the Democratic candidate was 75.8%. As observed in the solidly conservative magazine Commentary in 2005, “The central fact about the Jewish vote is, after all, not how changeable but how stable it is. American Jews do not merely favor Democrats; they are the second most reliable bloc of Democratic voters in the country, exceeded only by African-Americans. One has to go all the way back to the election of Warren Harding in 1920 to find a Republican who gained more than 40 percent of the Jewish vote.4

Looking at a demographic mapping5 of the United States highlights the fact that states that have the largest Jewish populations as a percentage of the total population – New York (8.3%), New Jersey (6/1%), Massachusetts (4.3%), Maryland (3.9%), and Connecticut (3.3%) – have strong Democratic majorities, irrespective of how the Jewish population might vote. In contrast, states that are likely to be “in play” in 2020 – that is, where the 2016 election was decided by a narrow margin6 – are all states in which the Jewish population represents a relatively small, in some cases vanishingly small, part of the total population: Florida (3%), Nevada (2.5%), Pennsylvania (2.3%), Colorado (1.8%), Maine (0.9%), Michigan (0.9%), Wisconsin (0.6%), Minnesota (0.8%), New Hampshire (0.8%), and North Carolina (0.3%).

Finally, while the majority of self-identified American Jews, viewed as a single demographic, consistently vote for Democratic candidates, a closer look reveals that American Jews are by no means monolithic in their self-identification or political behavior. Based on 2019 survey data7, this population self-identifies more precisely as: Ultra-Orthodox (7%), Modern Orthodox (3%), Conservative (13%), Reform (29%), Reconstructionist (3%), Secular (21%), and “Other” (23%).

Notably, there is a strong trend among members of the Orthodox Jewish community (which itself is not monolithic) in support of Republican candidates. As one analyst observed, “in their voting patterns, political outlook and social values, Orthodox Jews turn out to be more like evangelicals than like their liberal Jews.”8

This trend has given rise to predictions of an impending shift in American Jewish voting patterns in favor of the Republican Party, in large part grounded in the higher birth rates among Orthodox Jews as compared to their non-Orthodox brethren. Such predictions – so far – appear over-wrought. Even assuming the trend itself continues, only 10% of US Jews currently identify as Orthodox.9 Moreover, in states with large enough concentrations of Orthodox Jews to function as a voting bloc (New York, New Jersey), such shifts – while potentially having real impact on some state and local elections – are (thus far) insufficiently large to impact state-wide voting totals.

Why Do Most US Jews Vote Democratic?

According to exit polls, educational attainment strongly correlated to voters’ choices in both 201610 and 2018,11 with those having more education far more likely to vote Democratic. Around 59% of American Jews have a college degree or higher (compared to roughly 29% of the general population12). Thus, this characteristic, on its own, would be sufficient to strongly predict support for the Democratic Party from much of the American Jewish community, reflecting what some have dubbed the growing “diploma divide.”13

Beyond this general observation, survey data regularly confirm that the connection between American Jewish voters (non-Orthodox) and the Democratic Party is grounded in a worldview that prioritizes a set of issues and values – ones that today are embodied in this party. Polling14 conducted around the 2018 mid-term election offers a valuable window into this phenomenon.

Asked to select the top two issues that were most important to them in deciding their vote, self-identified Jewish voters ranked the issues as follows: health care (43%), gun violence (28%), Social Security and Medicare (21%), the economy (19%), immigration (18%), and the environment (14%). Coming next were taxes (11%), education (8%), the deficit and government spending (8%), the Supreme Court (8%), and “ISIS and terrorism” (7%). At the bottom of the rankings, coming in 12th place, was Israel (4%), followed by Russia (3%), Iran (1%), and Other (8).

Similarly, another poll conducted in 201915 confirmed that healthcare is the top issue of concern for Jewish voters, while Israel “remains the lowest policy priority when determining which candidate to support.”

What about Israel?

A political analyst recently observed that, “…the implication that Jews should vote primarily based on their allegiance to Israel seems to uncomfortably partake of the larger swirl of anti-Semitic sentiment that’s surrounded Trump from the beginning of his campaign.”16

Indeed, contrary to what some might assume, regular polling – conducted by groups from across the political spectrum – confirms that Israel and Israel-related policies do not figure significantly into the voting decisions of most Jews when they go to the polls for presidential elections, at least until this point. Moreover, contrary to what some – including President Trump – appear to assume, the majority of American Jews do not reflexively approve of US policies that align closely with those of Israeli hardliners.

In the current political climate – in which President Trump has suggested that American Jews who support Democrats are “disloyal” to Israel and to fellow Jews,17 and in which Trump and his surrogates regularly brag about their pro-Israel, pro-Jewish bona fides – these phenomena seem so counter-intuitive that they deserve deeper examination. It is thus instructive to review polling conducted in 201818 and 201919 by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) – an organization identified with the center-right of the American Jewish community.

With respect to Jewish support for President Trump’s Israel policies, these polls found that a strong majority of US Jews (59% in 2018, 64% in 2019) supports the two-state solution – the very solution that President Trump has for all intents and purposes abandoned. Likewise, a similarly strong majority of US Jews (59% in 2018, 66% in 2019) supports dismantling some or all of the settlements that Israel has built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – the same settlements that Trump administration policy has shifted to legitimize. Even more notably, nearly half of American Jews (47%) oppose Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, and 39% oppose Trump’s shift in policy on the Golan Heights. Overall, the polls reveal that the majority of US Jews either disapprove or strongly disapprove of Trump’s handling of US-Israel relations – disapproval that actually increased from 57% in 2018 to 59% in 2019 (similarly, a recent Pew poll found that 42% of US Jews think Trump is “favoring the Israelis too much”20).

More broadly, while Trump has sought to portray himself as the true friend and defender of US Jewry, the AJC’s 2018 poll found that 55% of US Jews said they felt less secure than they had a year ago; in 2019, that number rose to 65%.

Countdown to November 2020

Nothing has happened to suggest that in 2020 there will be an unprecedented shift in the non-Orthodox Jewish American vote in favor of re-electing President Trump. Indeed, the view expressed in Commentary in 2005 might just as well be expressed today: “In the broader Jewish community, the cultural and religious agenda of the Republican party continues to exercise little or no appeal; indeed, other things being equal, most American Jews are likelier to vote for a candidate whose key issues are abortion rights and no prayer in the public schools than one who vigorously defends Israel’s right to use force to protect itself or who denounces anti-Semitism in the UN.”21 That commentator went on to speculate that for Republicans to significantly increase their share of the Jewish vote, “Democrats will have to nominate a candidate who is explicitly anti-Israel.”

Heading into the 2020 election, it is clear that President Trump and fellow Republicans are following a script that aligns with this analysis, working to depict Democrats as anti-Israel and to tar the Democratic Party with the brush of antisemitism, while depicting Republicans as the true pro-Israel, philo-semitic party.22 To be sure, there is nothing new about Republicans painting Democratic candidates as untrustworthy on Israel; this was a major theme in attacks on Barack Obama in 200823 and 2012,24 and on Hilary Clinton25 in 2016. However, in the current context they are weaponizing – to an extent never before seen in modern US politics – the issues of Israel and anti-Semitism.

Functionally, such a strategy serves a number of distinct objectives.

  1. Trying to shift the Jewish vote for president

There appears to be a genuine belief (or hope) among Republicans that they can achieve a major shift in the Jewish vote,26 and a clear intention to invest significant resources in making the effort.27 Yet, the likelihood of achieving such a shift – at least with respect to how US Jews vote in the 2020 presidential election – is remote, given that President Trump and the Republican party today embody a set of values and policies that are wholly antithetical to those of most American Jews – on healthcare, reproductive rights, gun rights, immigration, education, etc.

Moreover, while concerns about antisemitism – an issue increasingly conflated with criticism of Israel – are without question gaining greater resonance among Jewish voters, polling suggests that US Jews are not buying the Republicans’ strategy of blaming Democrats for the problem. The 2019 AJC poll documented, rather, that 63% of Jews believe Democrats bear no or virtually no responsibility for rising antisemitism, versus 54% who believe Republicans bears all or most responsibility for it. Similarly, 78% of Jews believe there is a moderate or serious threat coming from the extreme political right, while 62% say there is either no threat or only a slight threat from the extreme political left. And fully 73% of Jews disapprove or strongly disapprove of how President Trump is handling antisemitism.

With this in mind, one should expect attacks to escalate after the Democratic primaries, commencing in February, tailored to make the case that the chosen candidate, whoever she or he may be, is anti-Israel and anti-Jewish. For a sense of what that will look like, one has only to note the attacks already being launched on Bernie Sanders, the sole Jewish candidate, who has been painted (among other things) as being in league with anti-Semites28 and as being anti-Israel.29 Similarly, Elizabeth Warren has already been attacked for having a (Jewish) campaign staffer who was previously associated with If Not Now, an organization that is highly critical of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians,30 and for having been endorsed by Americans of Palestinian descent who are critical of Israel.31

Moreover, in close races across the country, in which every vote will truly count, any change in the Jewish vote could be significant. In particular, small shifts in the Jewish vote in states like Florida – where generational factors could open the door to greater shifts than elsewhere in the country – could be a decisive factor in a close election.

  1. Looking for benefits down-ballot

Even where the results of these efforts are unlikely to directly impact the 2020 presidential election outcome, Republicans likely hope these efforts will yield gains further down the ballot (i.e., in local and state elections, including congressional races). Forcing Democrats to constantly fend off accusations of being anti-Israel or antisemitic siphons off campaigns’ time, energy, political capital and funds. And as was seen in the 2018 mid-term election, accusations of being insufficiently pro-Israel or even a passing association with boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, proved to be powerful political weapons against a number of Democratic candidates in key races, including Andrew Gillum in Florida,32 Stacey Abrams in Georgia,33 Scott Wallace in Philadelphia,34 and Cynthia Nixon in New York.35

Likewise, by focusing attacks on prominent people of color (Representatives Ilhan Omar [D-Minnesota] and Rashida Tlaib [D-Michigan], and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez [D-New York], Linda Sarsour, and Marc Lamont Hill) and movements led by people of color (Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, Dream Defenders), the Republicans’ Israel/antisemitism strategy is already succeeding in sowing divisions within the Democratic Party. Democratic leaders and politicians are, in effect, facing a lose-lose situation: if they defend their colleagues, they are charged with tolerating or engaging in antisemitism themselves. If they repudiate or discipline their colleagues, their actions are cast as validating the narrative that the Democratic Party has an antisemitism problem. Similarly, each time a Democratic leader or politician denounces and delegitimizes those in the progressive grassroots who are engaged in activism critical of Israeli policies, they fracture grassroots unity and undermine popular organizing and engagement.

This dynamic will continue to hold, unless Democrats shift tactics and move to publicly re-claim the moral high ground, “by affirmatively and unapologetically defining ‘pro-Israel’ in terms that uphold liberal values, protect free speech and defend the legitimacy of differences of opinion among progressives when it comes to Israel-Palestine. Unless and until they do, progressives will be caught between the same rock and hard place, time and again.”36

  1. Pandering to the Republican base

It is clear that American Jews are not the sole – or necessarily, even the primary – constituency at which the Republicans’ pro-Israel, philo-semitic campaign is aimed. Rather, it seems far more likely that this strategy is designed to pander to two specific constituencies: major donors for whom support for hardline Israel (and, as a related matter, Iran) policies is the main focus,37 and pro-Israel Evangelical Christians who, unlike most American Jews, prioritize Israel over other issues and for whom a very specific kind of philo-semitism38 – which is itself a form of antisemitism, and includes denying the Jewishness of Jews who do not conform to the required pro-Israel political ideology – has become a defining characteristic.

American Jewish Political Funding

Like other constituencies in the American electorate, many members of the American Jewish community contribute money to candidates for political office and for political initiatives. While polls find that only 18%39 to 19%40 of American Jews identify as Republican, this small group today includes the largest donors to the Republican Party. At the top of that list,41 coming in as the largest single donor (as of this writing), is Sheldon Adelson, who donated nearly $124 million to Republicans in the 2018 cycle. Adelson, notably, is one American Jewish voter/donor who very publicly puts his Israel-related agenda at the center of his political engagement.42 The focus of this agenda is shifting the foreign policy of the United States to uncritically support and endorse policies related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that align closely with the Israeli right- and far-right-wing – i.e., policies rejected by a strong majority of American Jews. Adelson is joined in his giving by other Jewish Republicans, many of whom likewise prioritize hardline policies in support of Israel, including Bernard Marcus43 and Paul Singer44. Such donors today play a strong role – some might argue as strong as key constituencies like pro-Israel evangelicals and wealthy “Messianic Jews”45 (i.e., Jews who have converted to Christianity, but still insist on their identity as Jews) in shaping Republican candidates’ and the Republican Party’s Israel-related policies.

While the data is harder to nail down compared to voting habits, a 2016 study found that the percentage of Jewish donations that went to the Democratic candidate for president was around 70% in in 2012, and around 84% in 2016.46 Moreover, like with Republicans, a number of top donors to the Democratic party are Jewish (e.g., Michael Bloomberg, Donald Sussman, George Soros).47 Such donations – small and large – reflect the issues and priorities the donors hold dear. As noted above, polling finds that most American Jews rank Israel very low on their list of concerns. It should thus come as no surprise that to the extent that large Jewish donors to Democrats are engaged on Israel, they represent a diversity of views – from close alignment with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) (Bloomberg)48, passionate support for Israel (Haim Saban49), deep commitment to achieving Israeli-Arab peace (S. Daniel Abraham50), to strongly criticizing Israeli policies (George Soros51). Moreover, some reports suggest that the policies of the Trump Administration – unrelated to Israel – are alienating some wealthy Jewish funders of the Republican Party.52

Finally, in addition to political contributions from American Jews, another category of political funding is often raised in this context: contributions from self-described pro-Israel organizations. As underscored by the preceding analysis, it is incorrect to conflate political donations of members of the American Jewish community with pro-Israel donations, or with support for hardline positions and policies vis-à-vis Israel. Unpacking what is wrong about both conflations starts with the recognition that there is no single, agreed-on definition of what “pro-Israel” means – indeed, the term means vastly different things to different self-described pro-Israel organizations, which include right-wing donors like the Republican Jewish Coalition and center-left groups like J Street. It is likewise important to recognize that some pro-Israel political funding comes from evangelical Christian sources like Christians United for Israel, and from sources that are not specifically identified with either religious community (like NorPAC).

Lara Friedman is the President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

1 “American Jewish Population Project,” Brandeis University, Steinhardt Social Research Institute, 2019, retrieved 19/1/2020 at
2 “Elections 2016 – Exit Polls,” New York Times, 8/11/2016, retrieved 19/1/2020 at
3 “US Presidential Elections: Jewish Voting Record (1916 – Present),” Jewish Virtual Library, retrieved 19/1/2020 at
4 Lefkowitz, Jay, “The Election and the Jewish Vote.” Commentary, February 2005 issue, retrieved 20/1/2020 at
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10 “Election 2016 Exit Polls,” CNN, 23/11/2016, retrieved 19/1/2020 at
11 “Exit Polls 2018,” CNN, retrieved 19/1/2020 at
12 “American Jewish Population Project,” Brandeis University, op. cit.
13 Adam Harris, “America is Divided by Education,” Atlantic, 7/11/2018, retrieved 19/1/2020 at
14 “J Street National Post-Election Survey,” op. cit.
15 “POLL: Domestic issues dominate the priorities of the Jewish electorate,” Jewish Electorate Institute, 22/5/2019, retrieved 19/1/2020 at
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17 Eileen Sullivan, “Trump Again Accuses American Jews of Disloyalty,” New York Times, 21/8/ 2019, retrieved 19/1/2020 at
18 “AJC 2018 Survey of American Jewish Opinion,” American Jewish Committee, 10/6/2018, retrieved 19/1/2019 at
19 “AJC 2019 Survey of American Jewish Opinion,” op. cit.
20 Gregory Smith, “US Jews are more likely than Christians to say Trump favors the Israelis too much,” Pew Research Center, 6/5/2019, retrieved 19/1/2020 at
21 Lefkowitz, “The Election and the Jewish Vote,” op. cit.
22 Lauri Regan, “The Democrat Party’s Third Rail,” Jewish Policy Center, Winter 2020, retrieved 19/12020 at
23 Larry Rohter, “Obama’s Comments on Israel Stir Criticism in US,” New York Times, 7/62008, retrieved 19/1/2020 at
24 Dan Senor, “Why Obama Is Losing the Jewish Vote?” Wall Street Journal, 14/11/2011, retrieved 19/1/2020 at
25 David Friedman, “First 100 Days,” Jerusalem Post, 20/10/2016, retrieved 19/1/2020 at
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28 Melissa Langsam Braunstein, “Linda Sarsour Is Too Antisemitic For The Women’s March, But Not For Bernie Sanders,” The Federalist, 10/12/2019, retrieved 19/1/2020 at
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31 Adam Kredo and David Rutz, “Iowa Warren Backer Praised ‘Immortal Leader’ Arafat, Slammed ‘Puppet’ Pro-Israel Politicians,” Washington Free Beacon, 12/12/2019, retrieved 19/1/2020 at See also Marisa Schultz, “Elizabeth Warren touts support from anti-Israel comic who once called her a ‘weasel,’” Fox News, 4/1/2020, retrieved 19/1/2020 at
32 David Smiley, “Andrew Gillum campaign says attacks casting him as anti-Israel are ‘irresponsible,’” Miami Herald, 17/9/2018, retrieved 19/1/2020 at
33 Zaid Jilani, “The Politics of Boycotting Israel Are Creeping into the Race for Georgia Governor,” Intercept, 28/11/2017, retrieved 19/12020 at
34 “Democratic nominee for Congress in Philadelphia district led fund that gave to BDS groups,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 17/5/2018, retrieved 19/1/2020 at
35 Stewart Ain, “Cynthia Nixon’s bid for NY governor sets up a clash over Israel,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 2/4/2018, retrieved 19/1/2020 at
36 Lara Friedman, “BDS Is a Trap for Democrats,” Forward, 281//2019, retrieved 19/1/2020 at
37 Eli Clifton, “Follow the Money: Three Billionaires Paved Way for Trump’s Iran Deal Withdrawal,” LobeLog, 8/5/2018, retrieved 19/1/2020 at
38 Yair Rosenberg, “Trump keeps pushing anti-Semitic stereotypes. But he thinks he’s praising Jews,” Washington Post, 21/8/2019, retrieved 19/1/2020 at
39 “AJC 2019 Survey of American Jewish Opinion,” op. cit.
40 “J Street National Post-Election Survey,” op. cit.
41 “Top Individual Contributors: All Federal Contributions,” Center for Responsive Politics, n.d. retrieved 23/1/2020 at
42 Theodore Schleifer, “Adelson: Trump likely to be ‘best president for Israel ever’,” CNN, 24/2/2017, retrieved 23/1/2020 at
43 “Bernard Marcus,” Militarist Monitor, 21/5/2018, retrieved 23/1/2020 at
44 “Philanthropist Paul Singer, one-time Trump opponent, attends president-elect’s fundraiser,” Times of Israel, 9/12/2016, retrieved 23/1/2020 at
45 Allison Kaplan Sommer, “Meet Donald Trump’s Least Disloyal Jews,” Haaretz, 27/8/2019 retrieved 23/1/2020 at
46 Eitan Hersh and Brian Shaffner, “The GOP’s Jewish Donors Are Abandoning Trump,” Five Thirty-Eight, 21/9/2016, retrieved 23/1/2020 at
47 “Top Individual Contributors,” op. cit.
48 “Michael Bloomberg,” Jewish News Syndicate, 20/3/2018, retrieved 23/1/2020 at
49 “Malina Saval, “Haim Saban’s Deep Love for Israel Drives His Philanthropy,” Variety, 22/3/2017, retrieved 23/1/2020 at
50 “S. Daniel Abraham,” Center for Middle East Peace, n.d., retrieved 23/1/2020 at
51 Nadine Epstein, “The Vilification of George Soros in Israel,” Moment, 24/1/2019, retrieved 23/1/2020 at
52 Amir Tibon, “Two Prominent Jewish Republican Donors GOP Cut Ties over Trump,” Haaretz, 17/9/2018, retrieved 23/1/2020 at